2003 April 06 Sunday
Iranian People Not In Pre-Revolutionary Frame Of Mind
Writing for the New York Times Magazine Elizabeth Rubin has written an excellent essay on the democratic opposition to the unelected clerics who rule Iran. She confirms what I've read from other sources: the Iranian populace are not eager to launch a revolution to unseat the Mullahs from power.
As radical and impatient for democracy as the students are, however, most of them do not want to lead Iran into another bloody revolution. I asked Mehdi Aminzadeh, a 25-year-old student leader studying civil engineering, if there was anything brewing in Iran equivalent to Yugoslavia's Otpor, or ''resistance'' -- a grass-roots movement spread by Serbian youth that defeated the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. (One of the opposition satellite television channels that are beamed into Iran by the Iranian diaspora in California constantly replays the chronicles of Milosevic's destruction of Yugoslavia and Otpor's destruction of Milosevic, as if trying to suggest a script for the students to follow.) No, he said. For now there is no social movement or political party tough enough and well financed enough to organize such mass demonstrations.
They had a revolution. It turned out disastrously. They are not eager to have another one. They want gradual change. All of this is understandable.
The United States can not count on an internal revolution to overthrow the Mullahs. The people of Iran are just not up for having a revolution. This is a problem for the United States because the Mullahs are well along in their development of their nuclear weapons program. The development of a democracy by either revolution or internal reform most likely will not happen before Iran becomes a nuclear power. The United States can not afford to wait long enough for the democratic forces to some day get into control of Iran and eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program (if an elected government in Iran would even decide to do so). International Atomic Energy Agency director ElBaradei has recently toured Iranian nuclear facilities and found the Iranians close to launching the operation of a uranium enrichment facility.
Dr ElBaradei became the first international official to be shown the Natanz site just under a month ago. He reported yesterday that a pilot uranium enrichment plant at Natanz "is nearly ready for operation, and a much larger enrichment facility [is] still under construction at the same site".
In a Natanz Iran facility 160 uranium enrichment centrifuges are tested and ready for operation while more uranium enrichment centrifuges are being assembled.
In a nearby building, workers are assembling parts for 1,000 more centrifuges, part of a constellation of 5,000 machines that will be linked together in a vast uranium enrichment plant now under construction. When the project is completed in 2005, Iran will be capable of producing enough enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs each year.
Some members of the Bush Administration see Iran's nuclear program as something that needs to be dealt with fairly promptly.
John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, joined national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in warning that the White House sees nuclear-weapons programs in Iran and North Korea as imminent threats.
``The estimate we have of how close the Iranians are to production of nuclear weapons grows closer each day,'' said Bolton, a leading hawk within the administration.
Iran, like North Korea, will not have its regime overthrown by internal revolt. If the United States wants to end the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development programs it must either launch preemptive strikes against their nuclear facilities or it must use military force to overthrow the Iranian and North Korean regimes itself.
The world is going to get very,very interesting,isn't it?
I feel sullied for even having thought this, but might not September 11 be someday seen as a blessing in the macabre disguise of mass horror? Had it never occurred, if there had not been the observable carnage and death in the heart of the nation's most vital city, would we have mustered the will to confront these issues? Isn't it likely, or at the least extremely plausible, that we would have proceeded apace, wagging our finger, spitting out UNSC resolutions, singing irenic songs, as Iran and then Iraq went nuclear? And then, then the conflagration, then the episode that would have served to finally focus our minds, to put steel to our reslove, would have been exponentially more crushing.
Glad you made that observation about Iranians knowing what rapid social change looks like and not wanting it. Three related points.
First, don't underestimate the pace of social change in Iran. It's already a considerably more liberal place than many of the gulf states (notably everyone's good friend Saudi Arabia). Sadly the low levels of tourism mean that very few outsiders get to see this, and media perceptions prevail outside the country: I went there a few months back and was struck by how different it was from the image you would otherwise have formed.
Second, consider the nuclear question from Tehran's point of view. They're close to India, Pakistan and Israel, all of whom now have nuclear weapons and aren't always friendly, and next to Iraq, who had been trying to acquire them for some time. The other nuclear powers didn't look too interested in offering them any protection. First Israel, then India and finally Pakistan experienced much the same process in acquiring nuclear weapons: other countries complained and complained, but once they had them, if anything it helped their bargaining position.
Third, reflect on events of the past few years from the same perspective. After the revolution the US was supporting Saddam Hussein in a very unpleasant war against Iran in which he made extensive use of chemical weapons. Now Hussein is today's target, but Iran remains an enemy. For many years Iran supported the Northern Alliance while Pakistan supported the Taliban. However overnight the Taliban became the enemy, Pakistan became an ally, the Northern Alliance became allies but Iran remained an enemy. They could be forgiven for not quite understanding how this happened.
I worry that elements of Bush's administration refuse to see the whole picture here. There are many possible solutions that do not involve force or coercion, including the potential for an impressive 'Nixon in China' if they felt so inclined.
TM, On your three points.
The social change in Iran is not helping us any. Iran is still going to develop nukes. Iran is still supporting terrorism. How the masses feel does not matter much as long as the masses do not control the Mullahs and the Mullahs control the government.
Second, Iran is not developing nukes solely as a deterrent. Listen to what Hashemi-Rafsanjani says about the use of nukes against Israel.
Their point of view: Everyone has their point of view. What they do is always justified in their eyes. Iran was threatening to export their revolution. What was their revolution? Theocracy of a brutal sort. As for "Nixon in China": Nixon checked the power of the USSR by playing the China card. Well, the US did the same against Iran at its most revolutionary stage. What do we want from Iran as an ally? Against who? The "Nixon in China" analogy doesn't hold.
I do not hold that all regimes and governments are morally equivalent. Some are too dangerous to trust with nuclear weapons. Their history and their own statements demonstrate that. If too many Muslim countries get nukes it is inevitable that some terrorists with plausible deniability about where they got their nukes will smuggle some into American cities and set them off.
I do not see Saudi Arabia as a good friend. But since it is not developing nukes it is less of a threat than Iran.
You don't need to believe in the moral equivalence of regimes (and I agree that you should not believe in such a thing) to consider all the alternatives for securing your own security. The brilliance of Nixon's rapprochement with China was not just the effect on US-USSR relations but moving China from something close to an enemy to something with which deals could be made. The changes you see in Iran today show that even the most extreme of the mullahs are responsive to the will of the people, whether or not ballot boxes are involved: there are many more than two factions in Iranian politics of which Rafsanjhani represents an extreme position, but none of them are quite the equal of their rhetoric one way or another. To this extent the will of the people does matter, as does understanding their perspective as it is critical in understanding their motivations and thus predicting their responses to our actions. I differ from your risk assessment in that I believe it would be possible to dissuade Iran from making fissile material available to those who might use it against western countries, whether that involves them not producing or not distributing it. I view (say) Saudi dollars in the hands of other countries' terrorists buying black market ex-USSR materials as a far more pertinent threat, though unfortunately one that doesn't have an identifiable target associated with it. For those potential threats that do have associated targets, e.g. Iran, there are more options available than those that are commonly discussed.
TM, I do not see the other factions in Iran as important. The opposition press has been mostly shut down. The Parliament routinely gets overruled by the Mullahs. The elected President has demonstrated either an unwillingness or inability to stand up to the unelected Mullahs. The populace is not willing to engage in massive protest. The only factions that matter are those amongst the unelected Mullahs.